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Welcome to Red Dust Lane (1949)

LET'S take a turn here. Watch out for the droplets from the laundry on these bamboo poles across the sky of the lane. An American journalist once said that the colorful clothing festooned on a network of bamboo poles presents an Impressionist scene. But according to a folk belief, walking under women's underwear may bring bad luck.

Whether you believe it or not, it can't hurt to take a detour. And that's another convenience of those sublanes. You can move through the lane a number of different ways. Here we are, coming to the front entrance of the lane.

Oh, look at those people gathered here, sitting on bamboo chairs, wooden stools, and holding teas, cigarettes, and

paper fans. This is another special thing about the lane. The evening talk of Red Dust Lane- Red Dust talk.

You may well find chess and card games and talk among neighbors in other lanes of the city. But what is going on

here is truly one of a kind. Some people have moved away but still come back to Red Dust for the evening talk. It is a time- honored tradition here. Except in bad weather, a group of people always turns out for the evening conversation of the lane and about the lane.

Now what's special, you may say, about neighbors talking? Well, what makes it unique is the way they make a story out of everything, a way of seeing the world in a grain of sand. Of course, the lane residents don't invent stories with real heroes or heroines - certainly not the type of "the talented scholar and beautiful girl" or "unrivaled kung fu master." Nor stories with conflicts or climaxes as in books. Still, our storytellers try all kinds of experiments, traditional or avant-garde, flashing back and forth, showing but not telling, sometimes narrating from a special point of view, and sometimes from all points of view.

Since the characters are real people, the evening talk is enhanced through its interaction with the real Red Dust life. While listening to a story, we offer interpretations from our own perspectives, and contributions too, if we happen to know something the narrator knows not. After all, a narrator is not always that reliable, what with their told or untold reasons for making an omission or alteration. The audience knows better and is capable of pulling a story to pieces and retelling it in different ways.

A written story inevitably comes to an end at the last page of a book, whether happily ever after or not. Nothing is like that in real life. You can put an end to your narrative one intoxicated evening, but in a few years, there will be some new development or unexpected twist. A comedy turns into a tragedy, or vice versa, which changes the meaning of the earlier story. Needless to say, sometimes we also play a part, however inadvertent or insignificant, in the stories of others, which, in turn, come to affect ours.

Now look at this young man sitting in the center of the group. He's called Old Root- his surname is Geng, a homonym for "root," and he invented the nickname for himself. According to him, "old" in Chinese does not necessarily refer to one's age; it also connotes wisdom and experience. Though in his twenties, he has an old head on his young shoulders. Self- educated, he reads books like someone swallowing dates without worrying about their pits. Like the proverb goes, the water does not have to run deep: a dragon in it will make it special. Judging from the position of his chair, he must be the storyteller for the evening.

(To be continued next week)


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